by Thomas W. Lippman
One of the most predictable, scripted events in Washington is a visit to the White House by a foreign leader during which neither the president nor his visitor wants to make any real news. A classic of the genre unfolded Friday when King Salman of Saudi Arabia, on his first trip to the United States since assuming the throne last winter, went to see President Obama.
The two posed for pictures, chatted amiably, met privately for a while, and had lunch together. Then they issued a joint statement that predictably reaffirmed the strength and durability of the bilateral relationship but contained nothing of substance and offered no new initiatives related to any of the multiple conflicts ravaging the Middle East.
On the contrary, the statement mostly called for stopping the violence in Yemen and Syria and resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute on the basis of decisions and resolutions approved previously in other forums. The fact that major U.S. broadcast television networks did not even mention the event in their news reports on Friday evening was an indication of the anodyne nature of the event.
Differences over Iran
In a way, the fact of the visit was itself the news. In May, Salman upset the White House when he spurned an invitation to join Obama and leaders of the other Arab Gulf monarchies in a security summit at Camp David. Analysts attributed the king’s decision to his distress over the pending nuclear deal that the United States and five other powers known as the P5+1 were negotiating with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival. But the two senior princes who did represent the kingdom at that event signed off on a statement welcoming a deal that limited Iran’s nuclear capabilities as potentially enhancing regional security. That was an unmistakable signal that Saudi Arabia was not going to break publicly with its most important security partner over an initiative to which Obama was committed, and it has not done so since the agreement was finalized.
According to journalists who traveled with the king, Saudi leaders remain anxious about the implications of the Iran deal, fearing that the lifting of international sanctions will provide Iran with the money to support its regional allies and Saudi Arabia’s foes. That may well be true, but they also realize that they have nothing to gain by making a public issue of it.
The statement issued Friday said that “the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [as the king is known officially] expressed support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries, which once fully implemented, will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and thereby enhance security in the region.”
At a press briefing after the meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the countries had agreed on ways “to counter Iran’s negative activities” in the Middle East and ensure Tehran could not develop a nuclear weapon.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is satisfied with these assurances after having spent the last two months consulting with its allies in Europe and other places. We believe this agreement will contribute to security and stability in the region by preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.”
With that issue off the table, the two leaders said their countries would work together to shore up the Gulf States’ military capabilities, confront the Islamic State, halt the carnage in Syria and Yemen, and counter Iranian troublemaking all across the region, positions on which both have long been in agreement. Saudi Arabia and the United States clearly have tactical differences over Yemen and Syria, but their strategic objectives are the same.
Considerably more informative was another bilateral event that took place at the same time a few blocks away: the U.S.-Saudi Investment Forum 2015, organized by the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority and business groups that promote business ties.
American companies are already deeply invested in the Saudi economy, and the Riyadh government is eager for more. At the forum, members of King Salman’s cabinet, representatives of the central bank and some state-owned industries, and American business executives familiar with the kingdom’s investment climate told a large audience of business people, investment bankers, and potential investors about opportunities in alternative energy, education, health care, chemicals and other sectors. In the aggregate, these sessions made clear that the U.S.-Saudi relationship goes far beyond security issues.
The Saudis made clear that they do not intend to reduce their oil production or intervene in the world market to drive up oil prices or to curtail development projects to save money. “Oil is a commodity. The price is cyclical,” said Abdullah Jumah, chairman of the Saudi Investment Bank and a former CEO of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. At the moment, supply exceeds demand, he said, but that will change.
Jumah, who is also the health minister, said that the relatively affluent Saudi people know about the standards of medical care available at such facilities as the Cleveland Clinic and are demanding similar quality care for themselves. He said that Saudi Arabia plans to meet that demand by spinning off much its state health care system into “public-private partnership” with such renowned U.S. institutions as the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins.
Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf said that, despite rumors circulating in financial markets, the kingdom is committed to the longstanding peg of the riyal to the dollar and does not intend to devalue its currency. “We want to eliminate any exchange rate risk for investors,” he said.
With the price of oil at its lowest in years, Saudi Arabia is running a substantial budget deficit this year because it is spending heavily on the war in Yemen along with sizable investments in a military buildup, mammoth infrastructure projects, and public services. The kingdom recently began issuing domestic bonds to cover some of the gap, but bankers at the conference said that the country’s $660 billion in foreign reserves and strong credit ratings mean that it can easily cover its obligations.
Julie Monaco, global head of public financing at Citigroup, said that if oil prices, spending, and borrowing remain at their current levels through 2019, Saudi Arabia’s debt-to-GDP ratio will be 25 percent, “a position most countries would envy.” In contrast in the United States, in the second quarter of this year, federal government debt was 101.4 percent of GDP, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.